Wednesday, 19 April 2023 06:25

The COVID Tracking Project Part 1

Credit: Illustration by Amanda Northrup

This three-part series takes listeners inside the failed federal response to COVID-19 and explores the massive volunteer effort to collect data about the disease.

The United States has 4% of the world’s population but 16% of COVID-19 deaths. This series investigates the failures by federal agencies that led to over 1 million Americans dying from COVID-19 and what that tells us about the nation’s ability to fight the next pandemic. Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera is the host for this three-part series.

The first episode takes us back to February 2020, when reporters Rob Meyer and Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic were trying to find solid data about the rising pandemic. They published a story that revealed a scary truth: The U.S. didn’t know where COVID-19 was spreading because few tests were available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also didn’t have public data to tell citizens or federal agencies how many people were infected or where the outbreaks were happening.

Their reporting led to a massive volunteer effort by hundreds of people across the country who gathered the data themselves. The COVID Tracking Project became a de facto source of data amid the chaos of COVID-19. With case counts rising quickly, volunteers scrambled to document tests, hospitalizations and deaths in an effort to show where the virus was and who was dying.

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Explore: The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic


the covid tracking project

Series host: Jessica Malaty Rivera | Series producers and reporters: Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler | Series editor: Michael I Schiller | Production assistants: Max Maldonado, Kori Suzuki and Aarushi Sahejpal | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Amanda Northrup | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martinez and Michael Montgomery | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Co-executive producers: Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler

Special thanks to The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic | This series is presented by Tableau

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s 2008 and Jessica Malaty Rivera’s friends all think she’s a spy or some kind of secret agent.
Jessica Malaty …: I was not a spy. I kept trying to say it like, “Guys, I’m just a nerd that works at a university on a really, really dorky, but important project.”
Al Letson: She’s living in DC. She leaves early every morning and comes home late at night. She speaks multiple languages, Arabic, Spanish, English, and some Portuguese, and she can’t talk about what she does during the day, just because working on something called Project Argus.
Jessica Malaty …: Project Argus was named after Argus, the 100-eyed giant in Greek mythology, the one who can see all things.
Al Letson: Project Argus is at Georgetown University and its main clients are the intelligence community and the Department of Defense.
Jessica Malaty …: Our job at Project Argus was to track and identify these early warnings of emerging infectious disease outbreaks, and my colleagues and I covered about 50 different languages. And every morning we would read news sources from all over the world looking for keywords like overwhelmed hospitals or mass hysteria.
Al Letson: They’re trying to stop the next epidemic from happening. In 2009, they began noticing strange activity on a pig farm in Mexico and reports of an influenza-like illness among the farmers there.
Jessica Malaty …: And it escalated quite quickly. There were a number of animals, sick pigs on a farm and farmers that were sick too. And by piecing these kinds of clues together, we alerted them that something was happening in Central Mexico.
Al Letson: That something turns out to be swine flu, also known as H1N1. They move faster than the World Health Organization identifying the first cases of swine flu in 42 countries.
Speaker 3: We begin with swine flu now widespread in 46-
Speaker 4: This is ground zero in the swine flu outbreak. La Gloria, a remote Mexican farming village at the world-
Speaker 5: It then spread to the US with more than 13,000 cases and more than 25 deaths.
Speaker 6: The bad news is that in five months it’s become the world’s dominant flu strain.
Speaker 7: Infections have been reported in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Israel, Spain.
Al Letson: Jessica and the Project Argus team help alert the world to the dangers of swine flu and the early warning helps slow its spread. But then in 2013, the federal government pulls the funding for Project Argus. Jessica and her colleagues feel like the country is more vulnerable as a result.
Jessica Malaty …: It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. It was like a matter of time for the next global pandemic. If you’re not being Argus with 100 eyes looking all over for emerging threats, you’re not going to see it until it hits you in the face.
Speaker 8: COVID-19 has spread to more than two dozen countries.
Speaker 9: We’re deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.
Speaker 8: And anyone who shows symptoms of the illness will not be allowed on the plane.
Speaker 10: We can’t slow down the numbers. The trajectory is continuing to go up.
Speaker 11: The breaking news, stay at home. That is the order tonight from four state governors as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. New York, California, Illinois, and Connecticut, all ordering non-essential employees to stay home. Those orders cover 75…
Al Letson: It’s been three years since the pandemic shut the country down. More than a million people have died from COVID in the US alone. If you just slow down to think about that number, it’s devastating. And the thing is, it didn’t have to be this bad. If we had real accurate public health data, we could have saved lives. The US accounts for just 4% of the world’s population, but 16% of the world’s known COVID deaths.
Speaker 12: Our growing frustration this morning over the shortage of coronavirus tests in the United States…
Speaker 13: Not enough test kits are available to local medical centers.
Speaker 14: There is clearly a lack of information.
Al Letson: The fight against pandemics is won and lost with data because in the simplest terms, if you know who’s sick, you can isolate them and treat them.
Speaker 12: With so few tests here and elsewhere, knowing the actual number of infected people, not just the people who have died, but the actual number of people who are infected, that’s impossible right now. Because there’s just not enough tests, not enough people have been tested.
Al Letson: And as the pandemic spiraled out of control, Jessica kept waiting for the federal government to step in.
Jessica Malaty …: I just kept thinking, where is the CDC? They weren’t releasing numbers about how many people were sick or hospitalized or dead from the virus, and I finally got to the point where I was like, if they’re not going to provide the information, then who is?
Al Letson: Jessica was looking for answers and she wasn’t alone. That’s how she linked up with a group of scrappy volunteers who banded together to collect COVID-19 data on their own. They call themselves the COVID Tracking Project. They built unlikely alliances with government insiders and became the nation’s trusted COVID data resource, relied upon by the White House, the Biden campaign and newsrooms across the US.

We partnered with members of the COVID Tracking Project to investigate the federal government’s response to COVID and to understand America’s ability to combat the next pandemic. Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera will be our guide throughout this series.
Jessica Malaty …: It’s late February, 2020. Rob Meyer and Alexis Madrigal are working as reporters at The Atlantic. They’re following the news about COVID coming out of China and they both have this sinking feeling that it’s worse than the Trump administration is letting on. So Rob and Alexis start texting articles to each other constantly.
Alexis Madrigal: The real moment that I remember being like, “Oh, this is coming for us.” Rob must have sent it to me or I came upon it. Guy named Trevor Bedford, a genomic epidemiologist.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis texts Rob immediately.
Rob Meyer: I was just like texting with Alexis about this thread. I even remember where I was when I read that blog post. I had just done some yoga and I was lying on my yoga mat. I was getting in the shower. I pick up my phone, I see it, I read it. The shower was running and I was about to get in the shower. And I was just like, “Oh… “
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis and Rob are frozen in place reading the thread.
Rob Meyer: So Trevor Bedford, he tweeted… The team at the Seattle Flu Study has sequenced the genome the COVID-19 community case reported yesterday from Snohomish County, Washington and posted the sequence publicly to-
Jessica Malaty …: Here’s the gist of what they found so terrifying. The tweet said that the first case of COVID in the US was reported in Seattle on January 19th. It was a person who had just come back from China. Six weeks later, another person in Snohomish County just outside of Seattle tests pos
Rob Meyer: There are some enormous implications here.
Jessica Malaty …: Rob’s reading from Bedford’s tweets.
Rob Meyer: This case WA-2 is on a branch in the evolutionary tree that-
Jessica Malaty …: They want to know are these two cases linked?
Rob Meyer: The first reported case in the USA, which is sampled January 19th…
Jessica Malaty …: They discovered that the recent case is genetically related to the first one in January.
Rob Meyer: He said, “This strongly suggests there has been cryptic transmission in Washington state for the past six weeks.”
Jessica Malaty …: Which means that COVID has likely been spreading in the US for six weeks undetected.
Alexis Madrigal: And basically, what he showed was that SARS-CoV-2 was like everywhere.
Rob Meyer: It was not just that the CDC was a few days late setting up big testing sites in Seattle. It was that the CDC was six weeks late understanding the entire spread of the pandemic in the United States and we had no idea how many people were infected.
Alexis Madrigal: There were just undoubtedly tens of thousands of more people who were already infected and we were just waiting to find out.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis’s first thought is to warn his family and friends that the virus is here and it’s deadly.
Alexis Madrigal: That was probably the hardest time for me, I would say. That was kind of the only time during all this when I was crying on a regular basis in part because I couldn’t get people to listen to me. My parents were still… My dad was still going to work, he was still going the club and I was like, “Dad, stop.” And finally it was the only time I’ve ever yelled at my parents too. It was just like, “Stop. You’ve got to stop. You don’t know where this is going to hit.”
Jessica Malaty …: It’s a Monday morning in early March and everything feels heavier. Rob walks to work through northwest DC taking his usual route to the Watergate building where The Atlantic’s office is. He’s not even sure he should be going in anymore. He sits down at his desk and sends a message to Alexis.
Rob Meyer: So I Slacked him on March 2nd, 2020 and was like, “Dude, we should really write some big sweeping Corona takes. People do NOT get it,” with not in all caps. And he was like, “I spent all weekend off about this.” And I actually first proposed to Alexis that we just look at the public reporting and say, “This is a huge emergency. The Trump administration is completely blowing this.” And The Atlantic’s response was, “You can’t write that. This is not just about attacking the Trump administration. You need to publish new reporting.”
Jessica Malaty …: They’re both frustrated. Alexis needs to vent. So he types up a message.
Alexis Madrigal: And I said, meaning to DM Rob that I felt like The Atlantic editors were not seeing the gravity of the situation, but possibly with slightly cruder language all throughout.
Jessica Malaty …: It’s the kind of venting you do with your friends, but definitely not your bosses. He means to send the message privately to Rob on The Atlantic Slack, but Alexis accidentally sends it to everyone at The Atlantic Newsroom.
Alexis Madrigal: Oh, it’s the worst. I mean, when I hit enter and realized what had happened, I was… It was pretty bad. At that point I just was like, “Well, I guess I got to double down. It’s not like I can erase it and pretend it didn’t happen.” So I doubled down and said, “Listen, I didn’t mean to post that here and I didn’t mean to put it in quite these terms, but we are not responding to this as the crisis that it is.”
Rob Meyer: So my feeling was if The Atlantic wasn’t going to let us write a piece about how bad things were, we needed to do our best to find a piece of information that would let people understand how bad it actually was.
Jessica Malaty …: The next day they cycled through every tweet and webpage from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They listen to press conferences and webinars about public health and they can’t find anything that might sway their editors about the urgency of the COVID situation. Then Alexis notices something strange on the CDC website.
Rob Meyer: Alexis Slacked me, he was like, “The CDC has really changed how they’re reporting the statistics.” They’ll add some numbers, then they’ll drop them. Then they went to having the minimum amount of information.
Jessica Malaty …: Rob decides to tune into a CDC press conference to see if they say anything about why the government keeps making changes to how it tracks COVID data.
Dr. Nancy Messo…: Hello, and thank you all for joining us today for this briefing to update you on CDC’s COVID-19 response.
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases is running the press conference. The mood is serious.
Dr. Nancy Messo…: Good afternoon and thank you all for joining us.
Jessica Malaty …: She had been in the news over the last week for speaking up at a previous presser about her fears about COVID. In that media call, she surprised her colleagues at the CDC and Trump by saying she thought COVID would change daily life. Trump was furious. The stock market dipped immediately after. So at this press conference, Rob wonders what she might say.
Dr. Nancy Messo…: I just want to mention that we are no longer reporting the number of PUIs or patients under investigation nor those who have tested negative. With more and more testing done at states, these numbers would not be representative of the testing being done nationally. States are reporting results quickly and in the event of a discrepancy between CDC and state case counts, the state case counts should always be considered more up-to-date.
Rob Meyer: We don’t think we have the up-to-date numbers anymore. You should go to the states for these numbers and it was framed as very much like, “The states are in charge. We’ve given the test the states.”
Jessica Malaty …: Rob feels like this is the key detail. The CDC appears to be taking no responsibility for telling the public what’s happening with COVID testing. The states have the data, not the CDC. Alexis is at home in Oakland, California. He’s with his family in the kitchen making dinner for his kids. He’s just finished the workday.
Alexis Madrigal: So it’s March 4th, my phone rings, it’s Rob, and he basically says like, “Dude, imagine that we are reporters on the Army Corps of Engineer beat and it’s like three days before Katrina, like what the are we doing? This is insane.” Why are we not doing more?
Rob Meyer: Because we were both so frustrated and angry and scared at that point. I said to Alexis, “We’re really staring down something catastrophic.” And so what can you do in that situation? What possible information do you try to get?
Jessica Malaty …: Rob and Alexis know it’s coming. Infection rates are about to surge and people will die.
Alexis Madrigal: So I finished making dinner for the kids and I go outside and I’m like, “It’s tough.” I’ve got the kids all ready. I already know that I’m going to pull them from school. And I’m just thinking like, oh man, I’m just trying to figure out the logistics of life right now. I was like, “All right, Rob, what do you want to do?”
Rob Meyer: My proposal to him when I called him was like, “We need to start asking state public health agencies how many have been tested and printing their refusal to comment if they don’t tell us.”
Alexis Madrigal: He’s like, “This is the most important number for the country, for the world, maybe.” We know there’s only at that time there are only a handful of cases that have been confirmed in the United States, but what does that number mean? Does it mean there’s only a handful of cases or does it mean we haven’t tested anybody yet so we haven’t been able to confirm that people have COVID?
Rob Meyer: If we try to get numbers from states like the CDC has told us to do, they will obviously be incomplete and then this will force the Trump administration to release them. Let’s split up the states and then just email 25 each.
Alexis Madrigal: And so we start doing it, that night.
Rob Meyer: We can write a form email. It will be very fast.
Alexis Madrigal: We broke up the states, made a spreadsheet.
Rob Meyer: We’ll have a little Google doc where we keep track of this.
Alexis Madrigal: Let’s see, so let me check here real quick.
Rob Meyer: Most of them will refuse to respond and that’s fine.
Alexis Madrigal: Do form email.
Rob Meyer: The email that we wound up sending to states was…
Alexis Madrigal: I’m Alexis Madrigal…
Rob Meyer: I’m Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic.
Alexis Madrigal: We’ve been tracking the coronavirus outbreak very closely and have some questions about testing. We have three factual questions that we’re asking state public health officials across the nation. One. How many people have been tested in your state total?
Rob Meyer: Two.
Alexis Madrigal: Two. How many people have tested positive?
Rob Meyer: Three.
Alexis Madrigal: Three. How many people can your state test per day? Thank you.
Rob Meyer: My deadline is Thursday at 10:00 AM.
Alexis Madrigal: Thursday at 10:00 AM.
Rob Meyer: Thank you so much.
Alexis Madrigal: Last edit was made on March 4th, 2020 by Robinson Meyer.
Rob Meyer: I think the morning of March 5th, I was even like, “Well, that was a lark.” I sent out all those emails last night. I’m not going to get any back. But Alexis started getting responses almost immediately.
Alexis Madrigal: Good morning, Alexis.
Rob Meyer: Good morning Rob. In answer to your questions…
Alexis Madrigal: At this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina. Please see…
Rob Meyer: How many people have been tested in Iowa total? Eight.
Alexis Madrigal: We currently have the capacity to perform 80 to 100 tests per day.
Rob Meyer: Florida positive cases of COVID-19, there were nine.
Alexis Madrigal: Pennsylvania, at this time, the state lab can test 20 to 25 specimens per day.
Rob Meyer: Arkansas, how many people can your state test per day? Four to five people.
Alexis Madrigal: Utah, Rhode Island…
Rob Meyer: Michigan, 86 people. Massachusetts…
Alexis Madrigal: Delaware has tested nine people.
Rob Meyer: And we started to get enough responses back where it was like, “Wow, you know, we can start to say that America’s testing capacity is really low.” We put it together that the number was tiny. We basically moved in the course of an hour from, “Well, maybe there’s probably nothing there,” to like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re sitting on national news. I need to publish immediately.”

So then around 6:15 PM we showed up in our editor’s Slacks like, “Hi guys, you didn’t know this, but for the past 24 hours we’ve emailed every state in the country and now we’re sitting on national news and we need you to help us publish this story immediately,” to which our editors were like, “What?” And of course we were like, “Ah, we need to publish.”
Alexis Madrigal: And on March 6th we published the story, which is like, “We can only confirm that fewer than 2,000 people have been tested for COVID in the United States.”
Speaker 10: Okay, so today these two great reporters of The Atlantic did a lot of shoe leather reporting, where they reported the following. We can only verify that 1,895 people have been tested for the coronavirus in the United States.
Speaker 20: The Atlantic magazine is reporting…
Speaker 21: … an investigation by The Atlantic…
Speaker 22: … published by The Atlantic on Friday.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: The Atlantic could only verify 1,895 people.
Mr. Trump: 1,895 people have been tested for the coronavirus…
Speaker 25: … have been tested for the virus nationwide.
Alexis Madrigal: And it was basically as we were publishing the story, all hell started to break loose in America and people started to realize what was really happening, which was that there were tons of infected people. You started to get these stories of people getting sick with COVID-like symptoms. Just whole groups of people starting to get really, really sick, particularly in New York.
Al Letson: The virus starts taking hold in big cities and nursing homes, but public health officials still don’t know how many people have it or where it’s headed next.
Speaker 26: We need to have testing and mean we need to have testing available everywhere.
Al Letson: After the break. Dr. Debra Burke’s White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator takes the fight for testing data to Washington.
Speaker 26: So I wore my most military looking outfit that I could find in my highest heels and went to work.
Al Letson: You are listening to Reveal.
Jessica Malaty …: This series was funded in part by Tableau from Salesforce. As the world’s leading analytics platform, Tableau helps you connect the dots between data, insights, and better business outcomes to make decisions at the speed of change. Salesforce, the global CRM leader empowers companies of every size and industry to digitally transform and create a 360-degree view of their customers. Learn This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson, and I remember when the first cases of COVID started appearing in the US. I was scared for my loved ones, for me, for the world, and I had so many questions like how do we protect ourselves? Does masking help? Where are the outbreaks? How many people are sick? How many have died? Early in the pandemic, the federal government found itself unable to answer many of those basic questions. Public health scientists like Jessica Malaty Rivera were watching this unfold knowing that accurate information, especially testing data, was crucial. Here’s Jessica.
Jessica Malaty …: Before COVID, the US was ranked the world’s best prepared nation to confront a pandemic. During previous outbreaks like Ebola or Zika, you’d go to the CDC website for the most up-to-date information, but this time it was different. It begged the question, why were journalists the first to compile accurate nationwide COVID testing data, and why were they doing what the CDC or the White House Coronavirus Task Force should be doing? That’s what COVID Tracking Project producers, Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler wanted to know.
Speaker 27: Great. Okay. This is where I’m supposed to go, right?
Speaker 28: Yep.
Speaker 27: Okay. Up the hill?
Speaker 28: Up the hill into the right.
Jessica Malaty …: Okay, so on a hot day in June, 2022, they drive to the home of Dr. Deborah Birx in Washington DC.
Speaker 28: And this is her house on the corner.
Speaker 27: Is that it?
Speaker 28: Yes.
Speaker 27: Oh, so many flowers.
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx was the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force during the Trump administration. She was on the news most days early in the pandemic. She was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Hello, I’m Dr. Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator. You’ve seen…
Jessica Malaty …: There’s one sketch where a cast member playing Dr. Birx talks about her decades of experience in infectious diseases and HIV research and how the media mainly focuses on her vast collection of scarves.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I’m on the front lines of this pandemic, synthesizing critical dense information so that the public can digest it and your takeaway is, “Wow, that lady sure has a lot of scarves.”
Jessica Malaty …: Or you might remember Dr. Birx from an infamous press conference, the one in April, 2020 where President Trump suggests that disinfectant might be a cure for COVID.
Mr. Trump: And I think you said you’re going to take…
Jessica Malaty …: It isn’t.
Mr. Trump: Right, and then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets on the lungs and it does a tremendous number of the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me.
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx is sitting to the right of the president, hands clenched together in front of her with a stoic look. The camera is zoomed in on her face.
Mr. Trump: I hope people enjoy the sun…
Jessica Malaty …: As he continues to speak. She stares straight ahead looking very uncomfortable. She takes some deep breaths.
Mr. Trump: I’m like a person that has a good, you know what-
Jessica Malaty …: And when he turns to her and asks if she’s heard of heat and light as a treatment, she says, “Not as a treatment.”
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Not as a treatment.
Jessica Malaty …: But no one remembers that part. Dr. Birx’s home is in a quiet neighborhood in DC. The front garden is lush with violet hydrangeas.
Kara Oehler: Hello.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Hi. Kara. Artis. It’s great to meet both you.
Kara Oehler: Your garden is beautiful.
Jessica Malaty …: Well, Dr. Birx brings Kara and Artis inside and walks them to a wood paneled room with bookshelves full of presidential memoirs and scientific literature about infectious diseases. She tells them she has every COVID book that’s been published. And in case you’re wondering she’s not wearing one of her signature scarves.
Artis Curiskis: Should we stay this far apart? Is it okay to be closer with the mic?
Jessica Malaty …: This is pandemic journalism. Everyone stays six feet apart. Dr. Birx is wearing a pink KN95 mask.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: No one in this household has gotten COVID, so we take all of precautions.
Kara Oehler: Thank you so much for having us here together.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Yeah, yeah. No, I tested this morning too, so I’m like a tester.
Jessica Malaty …: In January, 2020, Dr. Birx is in Johannesburg, South Africa. She’s running PEPFAR, a program coordinating the response to HIV/AIDS in Africa. She was nominated for the job by President Obama. When news about COVID starts to spread, Dr. Birx is doing what she can to help leaders prepare. So she invites two former colleagues to speak with African ambassadors. Those colleagues are now well known to most Americans. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who she calls Tony, and Dr. Robert Redfield, then director of the CDC. She calls him Bob.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I had Tony and Bob come because I thought… I mean, I was sure that we were doing what we were doing was right domestically and I wanted them to talk about it. Tony talked about where we were with, I’m working on therapeutics and working on vaccines and Bob talked about tests, so I’m thinking everything is covered. I’m thinking they’ve got this.
Jessica Malaty …: But then she wonders do they have this? The US response is less thorough than she expects. She’s seeing news about temperature screenings at airports, you know the ones that they point at your forehead?
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And I’m like, “Oh, that’s going to do nothing.” Nothing. I mean, that’s not going to work. They should be testing at airports.
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx worries that without testing, public health officials will miss the asymptomatic cases, meaning people who have COVID but don’t have obvious symptoms, like a fever. And then she sees news out of Japan about a COVID outbreak on a cruise ship.
Speaker 28: Hold an update now on the coronavirus outbreak.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And then I see the Diamond Princess.
Speaker 28: … 10 people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship have tested positive for coronavirus. The 3700 passengers and crew are now under mandatory quarantine for two weeks.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Then they isolated all of the passengers, but obviously not the crew. Yet the virus, you could see it spreading.
Speaker 29: Protective isolation was extended only to Diamond Princess passengers. Its crew continued going door to door.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re not testing the crew,” and the crew being younger are the asymptomatic spreaders.
Jessica Malaty …: This is right at the beginning of February, 2020. Case numbers continue to rise on the ship even though passengers are isolated.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And so I’m thinking that this is the evidence base for asymptomatic spread really clearly documented. I’m writing Bob about getting people off the ship because I’m like, “Oh, my God, everybody’s going to get infected.”
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx is sure that the crew is spreading the virus, but the only way to really know is by testing.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And in those early days, we didn’t diagnose anybody really that was asymptomatic because there weren’t enough tests.
Jessica Malaty …: She figures the CDC is planning to launch a massive US-wide testing program, but then right before Valentine’s Day, some bad news hits about tests.
Speaker 30: And now to another story we continue to follow tonight, the deadly coronavirus.
Paige Reffe: The slight setback when it comes to bracing for the deadly coronavirus here in the US.
Speaker 32: The CDC is remaking part of its coronavirus test kits.
Speaker 33: The CDC is redoing part…
Jeff Hammerbach…: … remaking part…
Speaker 35: … reformulating portions of test kits that were flawed.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: When the testing issue developed in the CDC, everybody was focused on the contamination.
Speaker 36: The CDC says that some of the test kits sent out to labs and states were defective.
Speaker 37: The agency says many of the kits have produced inconclusive…
Speaker 38: … inconclusive…
Speaker 39: … inconclusive results.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: But I wasn’t focused on that. I was focused on the fact that they were only shipping these tests to public health labs and my siren went off.
Speaker 40: State labs will have to wait until replacement components are shipped out by the CDC.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And that’s when I was like, “Oh, my God, they’re using the flu model.” And then I kept hearing all these references to flu on the national news and I’m like, “Oh, this is really… We’re in so much trouble right now.”
Jessica Malaty …: Flu tests are run by public health labs around the country. Most states have one of these labs, just one. In Dr. Birx’s mind, using the flu model for COVID-19 means testing a small percentage of people and using estimates to represent the spread of the virus throughout entire states and even the country. Also, flu tests are for people who are sick. Dr. Birx thinks we should be giving COVID tests to people without symptoms too. She knows that we need real case data, not estimates.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: We don’t know precisely how and when and where this virus is going to spread first and you’re isolating our eyes. We don’t have eyes on this virus. You’ve created holes in our surveillance system.
Jessica Malaty …: She thinks the CDC should work with private labs to create millions of tests. Using only public health labs makes it impossible to fully know who has the virus. The state labs only cover a small fraction.
Speaker 41: Diagnostic hits are going out to about 100 regional centers now.
Speaker 42: They’re getting help from public health lab.
Speaker 43: They’re a part of a flu monitoring system nationwide to serve as an early warning if the coronavirus does show up.
Speaker 44: Public health labs across the country will soon begin testing people.
Speaker 45: Public health labs across the US…
Speaker 46: Public health labs across the country that meet CDC standards.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I would be screaming at the television in South Africa saying, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You can’t test just through the public health laboratories,” because they don’t have high throughput platforms. I mean, they’re made for really small scale outbreaks.
Jessica Malaty …: What we really needed was for testing to be available everywhere. Dr. Birx, who is still in Johannesburg, writes to Matt Pottinger. He’s Trump’s deputy national security advisor. Matt is concerned too. They begin texting back and forth. She says things like, “Hey, I’m not seeing movement on testing.”
Dr. Deborah Bir…: What is going on? Where are you getting the data? I’m talking to Matt about the testing issue and getting people off the Diamond Princess and he keeps calling me and saying, “They’re not listening to me. I’m not an MD. I’m not a public health expert,” saying, “You just have to come. You just have to come.” And I was just like, “I don’t want to come.”
Jessica Malaty …: She thinks that if she joins the Trump administration, it might end her career. She might never work in public health again.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I mean, I knew what it meant to go into that particular White House, but I also knew how bad this was going to get.
Jessica Malaty …: But Matt keeps asking. Matt’s wife, Yen, is also a close friend. They had worked together back when Dr. Birx was at the CDC. She gets in touch too.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Yen wrote me and said, “As a mom, you know the threat to our families and the country is our family and our patient at this time, and you’ve got to come back.”
Jessica Malaty …: Matt doubles down and calls Dr. Birx again.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I tell Matt, “Fine, add my name to the list.”
Kara Oehler: For what?
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I don’t even know what it is. It’s volunteering to come back and help them with the COVID response at the federal level. I had no idea what it was. No idea. I mean, there was no… Nothing beyond show up Monday morning.
Jessica Malaty …: While Kara and Artis are interviewing Dr. Birx, she has to pause to take a Zoom call.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Dr. Deborah Birx. Thank you. Thank you.
Jessica Malaty …: So they have a chance to catch up with her husband, Paige Reffe, in the kitchen. Paige worked for President Clinton. He and Dr. Birx got married right before the first COVID case emerged. They were newlyweds when all this was happening. Paige remembers the moment she decided to join the COVID response. She called him.
Paige Reffe: She was in South Africa. She wasn’t here. And she called to say, “Listen, I got a call,” and she said, “He said basically the one thing that he knew would make me say yes.” He said, “I was a Marine. You were in the army. Your country needs you.” And that’s when she said, “Matt, we both understand that this is a terminal event in my career.” “Your country needs you.” And then she flew home and basically went into full mode. She got on a plane from South Africa. She got home on Sunday morning. She was at the White House on Monday morning, and then our lives changed forever.
Speaker 47: Good afternoon. We just finished the Monday meeting, the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Then I go back and look at all our pandemic preparedness plans. So I’m reading the whole 24 hours coming back on the plane and the plan doesn’t really have space for dramatic expansion of tests or data.
Speaker 47: Dr. Deborah Birx will be on our team. And even on her first day, she’s already been contributing significantly.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I knew when I flew back that day, I had to say to myself, “It doesn’t matter what they say about you.”
Speaker 47: Dr. Birx serves as a US government’s leader today for combating HIV/AIDS globally.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Everybody else on the task force except for Tony, is a political. I mean, I knew I was going to be in a very deep hole. Thank you, Mr. Vice President. It’s a pleasure to be here. I just arrived from South Africa last night. So I wore my most military looking outfit that I could find and my highest heels and went to work. I’m trying to get up to speed as fast as possible, and I look forward to the days ahead of really working together to end this epidemic. Thank you.

I assumed that there was data. I mean, I thought, okay, well when I get there, I’ll meet with Bob and I’ll see all the data. I just believed that there had to be real US data. And I go to that first task force meeting Monday morning and out comes a double-sided Excel sheet with cases on it. That’s what the CDC produced. And I was like, “What?” So I meet with Bob afterwards and said, “Well, okay, that’s what you presented at Task Force. Where’s the rest of the data? Where’s the data down to the county level? The community level?” They didn’t have that data then.
Artis Curiskis: What did you say back to him?
Dr. Deborah Bir…: Well, I looked at her and just said, “Bob, we have data on every single person who is tested, their test results, their referrals in Sub-Saharan Africa. Are you telling me we don’t have this here?”
Jessica Malaty …: Dr. Birx and her team have a system for knowing every single person who has been tested for HIV on the entire continent of Africa. And she’s shocked that the CDC isn’t doing something similar for COVID.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: And so that whole week I’m really worried because now I realize we not only have to create tests and a communication plan and an action plan, a full response plan, but now I have to create data streams.
Al Letson: Where is the COVID data? That same question was nagging at Alexis and Rob, The Atlantic reporters who we heard from earlier. Coming up, they take it upon themselves to track testing and infections across the entire country, pulling together COVID data with help from an army of volunteers.
Rob Meyer: If we hadn’t thought the world was ending, it was like it would’ve been a really cool thing to watch.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal.
Jessica Malaty …: This series was funded in part by Tableau from Salesforce. As the world’s leading analytics platform, Tableau helps you connect the dots between data, insights, and better business outcomes to make decisions at the speed of change. Salesforce, the global CRM leader empowers companies of every size and industry to digitally transform and create a 360-degree view of their customers. Learn This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re taking you back to the beginning of the pandemic when information was scarce. Public health data about infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths was critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19. But the CDC wasn’t releasing it. We’re trying to figure out why. Epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera of the COVID Tracking Project brings us back to the moment when reporters from The Atlantic broke the first big story about the lack of testing data in the US.
Jessica Malaty …: Rob Meyer and Alexis Magical, the journalists you heard from earlier in the show, published their article about the lack of testing in the US on March 6th, 2020. Right after the story goes live, Alexis gets a message.
Alexis Madrigal: We hit publish on the story. Me, I don’t know, 10, 20 minutes later, I check my email and I have an email from a guy named Jeff Hammerbacher. So Jeff Hammerbacher was an old, old friend of mine. He was kind of like one of these funny guys who was a super jacked baseball player, but low-key with a… actually like a math savant, just super brainy dude. But anyway, he sent me this email that was basically like, “Hey, man, so glad you published this. Did you use my spreadsheet to help report this out?” So I click on the link and realize that Jeff Hammerbacher, my friend since I was 18 years old, had been doing the exact same thing that Rob and I had just done.
Jessica Malaty …: Jeff has also been looking at every state website and writing down the numbers in a spreadsheet, tracking the spread of the virus. Jeff is a figure things out numbers person. He’s one of the people credited with founding the field of data science. He was an early hire at Facebook and designed its data systems. When COVID hits, he’s worried about his family and their safety. They’re planning a trip to China in April. So he goes to the CDC website and one day there’s testing data for the entire US and the next, it’s gone.
Jeff Hammerbach…: And someone was asking on Twitter, “Where’d the statistic go?”
Jessica Malaty …: That’s Jeff. After COVID data vanishes from the CDC website, he sees a Twitter thread about it. There’s a reply from someone at the Association of Public Health Labs and it says, “If you want case data, you have to go to the states.”
Jeff Hammerbach…: Well, this is how it’s supposed to work. There wasn’t supposed to be a federal dashboard. It’s a state level problem, so states are going to report the data. And I just thought to myself, this is bonkers. Why would that be how we do this? So I just went looking for public health websites for every state.
Jessica Malaty …: Jeff takes it upon himself to publicly share whatever he finds.
Jeff Hammerbach…: So I just started tweeting every day at 5:00 PM the data.
Jessica Malaty …: He publishes the sheet on March 4th, thousands of people start viewing it. Two days later, Alexis and Rob published their story showing how few people have been tested, less than 2,000 in the entire country.
Jeff Hammerbach…: And I read it and I was like, “Wow, are they using my data?” This looks exactly like what I’ve been working on. That’s funny. And I thought, well, maybe Alexis just saw. So I sent him an email just to say like, “Hey, man, did y’all use this data for your project?”
Alexis Madrigal: So I sent him and back a message like seven minutes later saying-
Jeff Hammerbach…: “Holy shit. I wish we had,” were his exact words.
Alexis Madrigal: We made this one, which is a hell of a lot messier and includes media reports and conversations with health officials. Tell me more about your spreadsheet.
Jeff Hammerbach…: We got to talking and I was kind of like, “Do you want to figure out a way to keep working on this together?”
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis talks to Rob and they all decide to team up together. They assume it’s temporary, but they’re only going to do it until the CDC starts publishing the data itself. Maybe a few days. Until then, they plan to gather the testing data from states every day and publish it in their spreadsheet and it’s a lot of data collection, so they create a sign-up form to recruit volunteers.
Alexis Madrigal: The form was called State Testing Tracking.
Jessica Malaty …: And they tweeted out-
Alexis Madrigal: “Thanks for your interest in this project. We’ve merged two state testing tracking efforts together, Jeff Hammerbacher’s and The Atlantic’s.”
Jessica Malaty …: Volunteers start to hear about it.
Speaker 48: I was just on Twitter one day and I saw a call out for volunteers.
Speaker 49: I saw a tweet.
Jessica Malaty …: Jeff and Rob retweeted.
Speaker 50: I think Nate Silver actually retweeted something.
Jessica Malaty …: A political blog picks it up.
Speaker 51: Talking about how the only place I could get any decent data was this one spreadsheet and if you wanted to volunteer, you could.
Jessica Malaty …: More people retweeted.
Speaker 52: Apparently I was officially the first person in the volunteer spreadsheet.
Alexis Madrigal: And this thing is starting to form. I’m just like picking the name out of a hat. Yeah, you know, COVID Tracking Project. Sure, we’ll call it that, just completely ad hoc.
Jessica Malaty …: Suddenly there are a lot of people wanting to help and a lot of people wanting the data. The Google sheet is seeing an enormous amount of traffic.
Ryan Panchadsar…: I came across the COVID tracking project actually on Twitter.
Jessica Malaty …: That’s Ryan Panchadsaram. He was the deputy chief technology officer for the Obama administration.
Ryan Panchadsar…: And I thought this was interesting and odd. I was like, “Well, huh.” So let me just go to and see what’s there. And you go to and there’s nothing there.
Jessica Malaty …: Ryan got in touch to see if he could volunteer.
Ryan Panchadsar…: And I think within that 12 to 24 hour period of asking, “How can I help?” the spreadsheet was getting so much traffic that they couldn’t edit it. Google kept throwing its error messages.
Alexis Madrigal: That first weekend we basically broke Google Sheets.
Jeff Hammerbach…: We had saturated the number of people who were viewing the spreadsheet, so I was like just frantically trying to track down people that knew Google Sheets better than I did.
Paige Reffe: And so the way that I first helped was sending a note to Google.
Jeff Hammerbach…: Oh yeah, let me see if I can pull that one out.
Paige Reffe: Yeah, here we go. It was March 8th, urgent Google Sheet issue, tracking COVID testing data.
Jeff Hammerbach…: It was an email thread started by Ryan Panchadsaram.
Paige Reffe: I hope things are well.
Jeff Hammerbach…: I hope things are well.
Paige Reffe: Jeff Hammerbacher and Alexis Magical have been leading this citizen-led effort to track state level testing data for COVID. There are a lot of folks hitting the spreadsheet, so it’s unavailable, which isn’t great because this is one of the only sources of COVID testing data in the United States.
Jeff Hammerbach…: It’s crazy to think about how fast this was all happening.
Paige Reffe: The CDC is unfortunately not taking responsibility for aggregating and sharing these numbers. We hope they do soon. And I say, “Is there anyone within Google that can assist?”
Jeff Hammerbach…: And it ultimately got escalated up the chain at Google to the point where I got an email from Sundar Pichai, the CEO.
Alexis Madrigal: The fucking CEO of Google was like, “Put some guys on it.”
Jeff Hammerbach…: “I got some people that I’m going to send you away. We’re going to help.”
Jessica Malaty …: Within a few hours of Sundar’s email, Google engineers start to work on the problem. They bring the spreadsheet back online by the end of the weekend.
Jeff Hammerbach…: And that was my first day as a volunteer on the COVID tracking project.
Jessica Malaty …: Alexis and Jeff start organizing volunteers to do data shifts while Rob is focused on reporting about the data. He spends most of his time calling public health departments and doctors, and every time Rob pops back into the COVID tracking project Slack, it’s grown like crazy.
Rob Meyer: And so then I go into Slack and every time it was like… There’s this scene in one of the Star Trek movies…
Speaker 53: Captain Spock, Captain Spock…
Rob Meyer: … where basically a plant evolves all the geological and biological complexity of life in two minutes on screen.
Speaker 54: Computer.
Rob Meyer: There’s like a device called the Genesis device.
Speaker 55: Access to Project Genesis summary.
Rob Meyer: And it was like every time that I came into the CTP Slack for the next week, it was a higher order of life had evolved in the Slack.
Speaker 56: Genesis is life. From Lifelessness.
Rob Meyer: You’d come in, the first time it was like 20 people and we were just Slacking about COVID data. Then I’d log in like six hours later, 50 people in the Slack and there were seven different rooms and vertebrates had evolved, like there were bony fishes. And then I’d log in the next day and there’d be 100 people in the Slack,
Speaker 57: Hundreds of volunteers.
Speaker 58: All these people who felt the same way that I did.
Speaker 59: Really trying to help.
Rob Meyer: And it was like there’s flowering plants-
Speaker 60: So many people gathered together.
Rob Meyer: The fishes have crawled up on the land.
Jessica Malaty …: All of these volunteers start showing up and suddenly there are hundreds of them from all over the country. So many different people from scientists and public health professionals to high school kids, from academic researchers to boutique cannabis cultivators. Some have lost family members to the virus and others just want to help out any way they can.
Speaker 61: I was absolutely blown away.
Speaker 62: I’m a scientist. I’m glad to help in any way I can.
Speaker 63: I’m here.
Speaker 64: I work in healthcare.
Speaker 65: I snowboarded a lot.
Speaker 66: High school senior.
Speaker 67: I’m a tech person.
Speaker 68: Teaching ballroom dance is what I do.
Speaker 69: My kids are triplets. It’s crazy, crazy life.
Rob Meyer: Every day. The whole Slack was like building out.
Speaker 70: It was overwhelming.
Speaker 71: It was jargon and lingo.
Speaker 72: I had never used Slack before.
Speaker 73: I’m like, “What is the thread?” And then channel…
Speaker 74: Assembling new appendages, like in an alien life form.
Speaker 75: I just wanted to do something useful and wanted to help in some way.
Rob Meyer: If we hadn’t thought the world was ending, it was like it would’ve been a really cool thing to watch.
Jessica Malaty …: Not long after it started, I joined the COVID Tracking Project. I messaged Alexis, he added me to the Slack, and I started volunteering. I wanted to help. With my background in tracking outbreaks, I felt I had something to contribute, and I immediately realized we were all asking the same questions. Where is the CDC? Is the Trump administration silencing them? And where is the data? Honestly, I figured it would be a short gig, maybe a couple of months of volunteering while the CDC got it together and sorted their systems out. We had no idea it would take more than a year.
Al Letson: Next episode, we’ll hear from the volunteers who became the defacto source of COVID data for the country.
Alexis Madrigal: When we actually looked inside the federal government response around data, you were just sort of like, “Aren’t there any people in here?” Like, we are building data services out of sunflower seeds in Big League Chew. Like, where are the people?
Al Letson: COVID Tracking Project volunteers kept track of every reported infection and death. The pressure they’re under keeps ratcheting up.
Speaker 76: You begin to realize you know that you really are tracking deaths and people on ventilators and things like that. I actually always choke up when I talk about this, when I start to realize that this is not just a data project. This is a project about human data, and some of it can be a little difficult. Watching the numbers go up and up is a little difficult for sure.
Al Letson: With emergency rooms overflowing and death tolls starting to spike, getting a hold of good data would become more important than ever.
Speaker 77: A refrigerated truck has now been brought in here, a makeshift morgue.
Speaker 78: Refrigerated trucks and tents have been stationed outside of some hospitals to hold the bodies of the dead.
Dr. Deborah Bir…: I need every city, I need every county. I need every state, and I need cases and test positivity and hospitalizations.
Kara Oehler: And I was like, “Wow, aren’t you getting that from the CDC?” And she’s like, “Well, I haven’t been able to get it yet, but maybe you can figure it out.”
Dr. Deborah Bir…: There’s no US data that I could rely on.
Al Letson: The US was the top-rated country in the world for pandemic preparedness. So why was the government relying on a bunch of volunteers?
Speaker 80: I think the term is moral injury. It’s really hard to deal with a sort of systemic betrayal by the organizations whose job it is to keep everyone safe.
Al Letson: That’s coming up next week on part two of our series, the COVID Tracking Project. Our lead producers for this week’s show are Artis Curiskis and Kara Oehler. Michael Lohscheller edited the show. Jessica Malaty Rivera is the series host. Thanks to production assistants, Max Moldonato, Corey Suzuki, and Arushi Sehedgpa. Thanks also to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic where it all began, and the oral history team there.

This series was funded in part by Tableau from Salesforce. Nicky Frick is our fact checker. Victoria Barnetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Steven Rascon. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, Yoaruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Katherine Styre Martinez. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman.

Our interim executive producers are Brett Meyers and Taki Telanitas. Artis and Kara co-executive produced and reported the series. Our theme music is by Camarato, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.